While Chinatowns are all round the world, Little Indias are rather rarer. Except in Kuala Lumpur that is, which as of last year, has not one but two of them. Or not, depending on whether the area in central KL, which has been known as Little India for decades, has been officially stripped of its title. If this is the case, it would be a shame, as hardly anybody in the newly-designated Little India in Brickfields actually uses the term.
Ethnic Indians make up almost exactly one tenth of KL’s population, so it’s perhaps not surprising that more than one part of the city is particularly associated with them. From the very early days, one such area was just to the north of the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers. Over time it came to be known as Little India, and still retains a distinctive flavour of the subcontinent, from the sari shops, to the tantalising scent of curry.
One irony, given that the vast majority of ethnic Indians in KL are either Hindu or Christian, is that the area’s most prominent landmark is a mosque, Masjid India. Although a mosque has existed on this spot since 1863, the uninspiring building which is there now dates from a century later. If nothing else, it makes a useful point of reference while wandering round the neighbouring streets.
It was not until the late 19th century that Brickfields came to be associated with the Indian community, although that’s still very old in KL terms. Developing first around the area’s brick manufacturing industry, Brickfields prospered further when the main depot for the colonial railway system was built there.
The depot site was transformed a decade ago into KL Sentral, Malaysia’s busiest train station, around which a massive commercial and residential scheme is nearing completion. Within five minutes’ walk though is one of the city’s most characterful and historic districts.
From its earliest days, Brickfields has been associated with people from southern India and Sri Lanka, a fact that was recognised in 2010 when a small section of the area near the junction of Jalan Travers and Jalan Tun Sambanthan was officially renamed Little India. But it is far from being a monocultural ghetto, as demonstrated by the heartening variety of places of worship in the vicinity.
As well as one of KL’s oldest and most attractive Hindu temples, Sri Kandaswamy Kovil on Jalan Scott, it also boasts several Christian churches, the Sam Kow Tong Chinese Temple on Jalan Thambypillai, and the city’s largest Buddhist complex, the Buddhist Maha Vihara on Jalan Berhala.
It should not come as a shock that the two areas serve up some of KL’s tastiest south Indian food. And, as added bonus, both are easily reached by public transport — Masjid Jamek LRT for (the older) Little India, and KL Sentral Monorail or LRT, for its namesake in Brickfields. For taxi drivers it’s best to avoid the term Little India entirely, and refer to local landmarks or road names instead.
By Pat Fama
Last updated on 2nd September, 2014.